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Up & Coming

Bryan Carter

He’s been tearing it up in New York and well beyond with some bona fide legends of jazz.
But he knows as much as anyone that the learning never stops.

It can be frustrating for gigging musicians to hear of the latest young gun to take the music scene by storm, someone who has seemingly enjoyed all the breaks and stepped into all the right situations. But no one ever became a success by luck alone. Twenty-three-year-old drummer Bryan Carter plays with a maturity beyond his age, but he hasn’t gotten there without years of study, dedication, and persistence—even if he did take to the drums like a fish to water before the age of three.

A product of the renowned Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with the master jazz drummers Carl Allen and Kenny Washington and won two prestigious scholarships, Carter has worked with the cream of the jazz elite, including Clark Terry, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Barron, and Cyrus Chestnut. When not traveling the globe with esteemed jazz vocalist Kurt Elling—who hired him for a full-time spot practically days after his graduation from Juilliard—Carter works all over New York City, from high-profile gigs and club dates to private parties.

One recent event was particularly memorable. “I did a jazz cruise last January,” Carter recalls, “and Kenny Washington, Jeff Hamilton, and Lewis Nash were all there with their bands. All the masters of the instrument, there on one boat. In between performances they talked about where they felt the music should go and how young drummers like me should get there. It was a great learning experience.”

From the darting, Lee Morgan–style “Phil’s So Good” to the Latin-ized “Linda’s Call” to the backbeat gospel groove of “I See You” to the swift “Rat Race”—where Philly Joe Jones–worthy snare drum flurries morph into Tony Williams–like cymbal splashes—Carter’s 2011 debut recording, Enchantment, demonstrates the skill set that has won the drummer acclaim from so many musicians double and triple his age. Modern Drummer recently sat down with Bryan to find out more about the roots of his prodigious talents.


MD: What did you play when you were three years old?

Bryan: I played the drums even earlier, when I was two, on the congas. At church I would watch the drummer and try to play a beat. At seven they let me really play the drums, first in youth choir, then during parts of the service, then, finally, during the whole service.

MD: You studied with Ed Thigpen and Louie Bellson when you were eleven.

Bryan: Yes, my dad was the director of the local high school band, and he often brought in guest artists. Any time a drummer would visit, I would beg my dad to let me skip school so I could see them. When Ed Thigpen came, my dad got me all the Oscar Peterson records. [Thigpen was a mainstay in the pianist’s trio.] I would drum to the CDs. He gave me my first brush lesson and a pair of brushes.

MD: What did you practice at such a young age?

Bryan: My dad was hard on all the musicians, but I was his son, so I got it three times worse. I would practice for hours. I formed a relationship with Louie Bellson, who didn’t live that far away from us in Illinois. I worked out of one of his books that had all these transcriptions. And I played along with Tony Williams on the Miles Davis records—though my favorite was playing along to Art Blakey. I loved “Night in Tunisia.” I wanted to be Art Blakey. His press roll could cut a phone book in half! I also loved Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. I had DVDs of Dizzy Gillespie’s Dream Band at Lincoln Center, with Max. He played a tribute to Jo Jones, who was in the audience that night.

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MD: What did you perform for your Juilliard recital?

Bryan: Half of my recital was a double quartet: a jazz quartet and a string quartet playing my material as well as my arrangement of “Moon River,” modeled on the Art Blakey approach. It went from beautiful to boisterous.

MD: How is playing a pro gig with Kurt Elling different from what you imagined?

Bryan: Kurt has taught me consistency. He is a hundred percent every night. Even if he’s sick one night, you can’t tell. As the drummer it’s my job to make him sound good, though at times I feel like it’s him making us sound good. That’s the mark of a great bandleader, and I try to take that to heart with my own bands.

MD: When have you practiced the most?

Bryan: During my time at Juilliard. Carl Allen had me working out of Jake Hanna’s book Syncopation for All. Carl really changed what I thought was possible on the instrument. Then I went to Kenny Washington’s boot camp! Kenny had me study out of Charles Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos for the Advanced Drummer. He and I talked about the brushes and about the ride cymbal—how we attack the ride cymbal—and the sound we get out of the drums. Kenny has so much knowledge and pays so much attention to detail.

MD: What are you focusing on now?

Bryan: On expanding my understanding of sound and creating my own sounds. Trying to understand the sonic qualities of the kit and how I can expand what I already know. Also, being a young musician, I have never been so busy. It’s a huge challenge to come home to packs of music that I have to learn and charts waiting for me in Dropbox. I have a day to learn the music; I hop on a plane to the gig, return, and do it again. Just learning how to prioritize my time to learn music and make it sound natural.

MD: How are you working on sonic qualities?

Bryan: It’s a mixture of understanding the history of the kit, learning vocabulary from a book, and then letting it go. Letting it come out naturally in its own way to create my own sound. I just started recording all my gigs. I put the recorder at the back of the room to see how my sound carries. I listen for how things evolve, particularly when I’m playing the same material every night. I’m working on making sure my drumming sounds as fresh at the end of the tour as it did at the beginning.

MD: What is your advice to young drummers?

Bryan: Study as much as you can, listen as much as you can, and soak up as much knowledge as you can. There’s YouTube, iTunes, Spotify—the music is easy to find. It’s a benefit in that you can hear new music at any time. But it’s a detriment in that you can be overwhelmed. My generation has no attention span. So you have to overcome that and learn from everything. I have to force myself to focus on two albums at a time, to really soak it all in, learn from those albums, and try to be a diligent student of the music.


Tools of the Trade

Carter plays a Sakae Trilogy black oyster pearl set that includes a 5.5×14 Trilogy Vintage snare, an 8×12 tom, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 14×18 bass drum. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″ K Constantinople hi-hats, a 20″ K Constantinople Medium Thin Low ride with rivets, a 22″ K Constantinople Renaissance ride with rivets, an 11″ K Custom Hybrid splash stacked on a 16″ K EFX, and an 11″ K Custom Hybrid splash inverted and stacked on an 18″ K Constantinople crash. He uses Remo Coated Ambassador heads and Vic Firth AJ3 sticks, Heritage brushes, and T1 timpani mallets. His hardware includes Sakae or Gibraltar flat-base stands and Vic Firth VicKick bass drum beaters (felt and fleece models). His in-ear monitors are the 1964 Ears V6-Stage model.

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Story by Ken Micallef

Photos by Paul La Raia